Sleepy time down South: An interview with Nick Broomfield

Nick Broomfield comes to have a chat with Gary McDonald, one of the Grim Sleeper's best friends
Nick Broomfield comes to have a chat with Gary McDonald, one of the Grim Sleeper‘s best friends

I catch up with veteran documentarian Nick Broomfield, and chat to him about his most recent film: a profound, nauseous, deeply humanist study of how Lonnie Franklin, Jr. got away with murdering ten people between 1985 and 2007 without being caught. Broomfield delved into the marginalised, drug-ravaged community of South Central, Los Angeles, and resurfaced with some disturbing results.

You established contact with these people through local comedian Tiffany Haddish. But how did you know Tiffany, and was she a popular member of the community?

Tiffany was a friend of a friend, and I just met her by chance. She’d grown up in the street next to Lonnie Franklin’s, and had had a pretty difficult childhood herself: her father tried to murder her and her brothers and sisters, and her mother was in a mental institution. But Tiffany’s highly successful, very respected in the community. So she was the ideal person to start off with. And when I was being called ‘peckerwood’ [derogatory slang for white man] and all the rest of it, she was charming and beautiful and able to step in and just say ‘Come on guys, they’re just doing their job.’ And then we met Pam [a former friend of Lonnie’s, and crucial to the making of the film], who sort of took over.

I was surprised by how easily you seemed to get your interviewees to divulge information. Did you have to pay any of the people who helped you, or were they pretty forthcoming?

They were pretty much forthcoming. We paid people like Pam, and some of the other people who spent quite a lot of time with us. But in the main, people really just wanted to tell their story. Interestingly enough, the LAPD immediately said ‘Oh, you must pay them’, which I think was descriptive of the LAPD’s lack of respect for the people who took part in the film. They had a story to tell, and they’d never really been able to tell that story. And it was a very easy set of interviews, really; I barely ever had to ask very much. People knew what they wanted to say, and they kind of just told their story. And it was wonderful to sit there and listen to what they had to say, rather than trying to find ways to open them up a bit.

Were any of the interviewees a lot more difficult than others in how forthcoming they were?

I think [Lonnie’s friends Gary McDonald and Richard Harris] were quite guarded for a while, but opened up. The women who had been with Lonnie were all pretty open. The lawyers were obviously tricky; I had a pretty bad relationship with the DA, which was difficult. I think Margaret Prescod [of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders] was initially very suspicious of who I was and what I wanted to do, ‘cause there had been so many stories done that were completely exploitative and irresponsible… but because we were there for quite a long time, we had time to hang out with people and soothe their worries. We built up a lot of trust.

How long did you spend there?

Probably about a year and a half. That was not our intention, and I did do another film inbetween; and I went away for a period of time. But [Lonnie Franklin’s murder trial] kept being delayed; it still hasn’t happened. I [initially] thought that we would not have the film without the trial, so we just carried on. Because of that, I think it’s actually a much better film than it would have been, because we had a lot of time to develop relationships, and were often able to see through some of the stuff we’d got earlier on that was a bit inaccurate… like, when we did the early interviews on Lonnie’s street, people were anxious not to step out of line. People in South Central are reluctant to be seen talking to film crews and people from outside the area. And people were much more comfortable coming over to our studio and talking there than they were in their own living rooms. It’s that kind of community, really. Being seen talking to film crews is a bit like being a snitch with the police. There’s a strange sort of attitude to it.

I thought it was interesting that no whites (other than Broomfield) were visible in South Central, and no blacks (other than Lonnie) were visible in the courtroom during Lonnie’s hearing. Your film reminded me a lot of the 1991 movie Boyz ‘n the Hood, whose thesis is that the police are content to let poor blacks just kill each other off. How much truth do you think there is in this statement?

I think that’s completely the attitude. From the police’s point of view, it’s the same people causing all the problems. And they’re a waste of time, and it’s an unsolvable problem, and every week the same people are being arrested. So if [these people] just kill each other off, then great! There are all these stories about police dropping gang members into other gangs’ neighbourhoods, so they get shot and killed. A lot of the gangs are less [prevalent] now, but there is an attitude of not caring. When Christopher Franklin says members of the police department came up to him in awe of his father, and asked to shake Christopher’s hand, I think it was because they felt he was doing a good job cleaning the streets up. I think that’s definitely the attitude.

Do you find any valour or chivalry in the community’s refusal to snitch on each other, or would that be a romanticisation?

I think their behaviour is about dignity, and sharing a common enemy that the community faces together.

The men seemed to change pretty quickly in their assessment of Lonnie. How much time did you conflate for the movie? How long did it really take for Gary and Richard to open up to you?

Actually, it wasn’t that long. It was probably weeks. It was longer before they came forward with photographs, and with [Lonnie’s rather incriminating friend] Jerry. We re-interviewed some of them over time, and I guess we got men like Fernando [one of Lonnie’s friends who had a blackly comic take on the Grim Sleeper’s methods] through chance encounters that were really magical, in a way. It was just cinéma vérité at its best, you know, where something just happens, and evolves into an incredible scene.

Why do you choose to live in Los Angeles?

Well, the very first film I made after leaving film school was Juvenile Liaison, which was a film I shot about the police in Blackburn, Lancashire. It was banned, and still is; it’s never been shown publicly. And I spent nearly two years on it with Joan Churchill. And Joan’s American, and she said, ‘Oh, fuck this, let’s go and make a film in America now.’ And so we came over here [to LA] and made a film about the California Youth Authority, in a maximum-security prison for juveniles. And it sort of just went on from there. I’ve gone back and made some [films] in England, too.

Do you find LA gives you more freedom than England does?

Not necessarily. In this day and age, I think it’s easier to have a foot in both camps. There are a lot of really interesting documentaries being done in America, and it’s nice to be able to meet those filmmakers – though funnily enough, I hadn’t really done much of that before this year. I went on the ‘Oscar trip’ [campaigning to be considered for the Academy Awards] this year, which was quite interesting. Also, I think the rest of the world is for some reason quite interested in what comes out of America. I think a lot of trends, a lot of things that have impacted England, you see happening here first, whether it’s fashion or feminism. Perhaps it’s less so now: the time it takes to get from one country to another is shorter. Fortunately though, politically, things are much less extreme in the UK. I think things are very divided here, very on the edge. Life is much harder for poor black families than it was thirty years ago.

So things have really just got worse for blacks in America since the Civil Rights Movement?

Yeah. They’ve got worse and worse and worse. I think that’s what a lot of these protests are about. It’s unacceptable. There’s a whole class of sub-human beings in America. There are a lot of very poor whites, too. They’re all [seen as] ‘non-human’. They can’t get proper medical help, they can’t get proper education, they can’t get new jobs, they can’t make any money. It’s a society that doesn’t really care.

Lonnie Franklin, Jr., post-arrest
Lonnie Franklin, Jr., post-arrest

At the lowest levels of the socioeconomic ladder, is much distinction made between black and white, or are they collectively seen as the sort of ‘dregs of society’?

I do think there is this concept of ‘disposable people’. I think it’s worse for black people; there’s more of them, so there are [fewer] opportunities for them. And their communities as a whole are more marginalised. But I think there is a group of sort of ‘non-humans’.

You say in the documentary that the acronym used by the police to describe cases involving prostitutes and drug addicts, ‘NHI’ [No Human Involved], “used to be used”. Is it no longer used in the LAPD?

I think the mentality is [still] there completely. If you Google ‘NHI police slang’, it’s still there. The ex-police chief of Seattle wrote about it in his biography. You can always find politically correct ways of saying things that are just as bad… certainly, the mentality is still the same. Otherwise, there’s no way Lonnie would have been around for 25 years, doing what he did.

Are there any places other than South Central where this sort of [quarter-century killing spree] might have been allowed to happen by a segregated and neglected community? Say, in the UK?

Well, I think the UK’s different, because there was never [much] slavery there. And all of this goes back to slavery, really. Attitudes haven’t really moved that far. I mean, despite the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-’50s, there are so many blacks still disenfranchised because of felony convictions. They see the drug laws as ‘the new Jim Crow’, because it seems to disenfranchise the black voter. And then you look at the whole composition of LA, with black people [having moved] from the South to LA when there was work here, when there was industry here… now so much industry has been outsourced, so in all those areas – Watts, Compton, Inglewood – the industry has gone. That coincided with crack coming in, and now those areas are all decimated, and written off, in a way. It isn’t that there’s not a lot of talent or people there, but it’s incredibly hard for them to get out of those areas and communities. Everything is set against them doing that. And I think that’s much, much worse than in the UK.

How does it compare to, say, Johannesburg?

It’s very similar to Jo’burg. South Central doesn’t look as dramatic as Soweto… it’s got these nice Spanish-style bungalows. But within these bungalows, there’s really no opportunity. There are different mortality rates, different obesity rates. It’s junk food land. One thing [authorities] are trying to do is close down the junk food restaurants. But the white part of the city doesn’t feel it has a real responsibility to the other parts of the city. I think that’s where it all starts. And the schools are so bad. When we were trying to get Lonnie’s yearbook, the libraries were all closed. You have schools without libraries, because they can’t afford librarians and books. So when you’ve got that kind of situation, what hope have the next generation really got?

Having lived in LA yourself, do you think people are even aware of South Central and its plight? Or do you think the wealthier denizens of LA are turning a blind eye?

They’re completely ignorant [about it]. One of the main reactions to the film here has been ‘Wow, what amazing people – they’re so articulate, handsome, dignified.’ The city is so divided that none of these [wealthier] people have ever been there; they have this attitude that if they go there, they’re probably gonna get shot, as if it’s the Wild West. So the film has slightly moved some people’s attitude. But [the prejudice] is so deep, and the dialogue has completely broken down between South Central and the rest of the city. It’s regarded as a sort of no-go area. Though [in South Central] you still get the best barbecue ribs I’ve ever had anywhere in the city. And there are fantastic clubs down there; the place has an incredible history of music and culture. But it’s so denigrated now.

I was rather surprised by the interview with Lonnie’s friend Fernando. It was like something from a Spike Lee film, with Fernando and his friend talking over each other; it had this strange rhythm. They were laughing so much while describing the horrific things that Lonnie had done. Was that a common sort of response? It seemed like there was a lot of guilt among the other male characters, like Richard and Gary, of having been complicit. Did Fernando and his friend stand out?

I think they were all kind of ‘naughty boys’, and they all participated a great deal. Remember, this is a community that has been ravaged by crack. And one of the things crack does is tear families apart; it tears the sexes apart. As a result, the men had very little respect for the women, and the women likewise had very little respect for the men. [Crack] was something that just ravaged the community. Parents lost control of their children, and the children would be out on the streets selling their bodies. You see a lot of extreme behaviour in those [crack-ravaged] communities. It’s a bit like living in a war zone: your reference points are very different from other people’s. I think a lot of that comes through in the footage.

Chris describes the whole situation as a “mind game”. Is this reflective of people’s refusal to face reality? And given this refusal to face reality, is it likely that things will improve for the jettisoned black community of Los Angeles?

It’s not likely things will change unless there are legislative changes concerning drug laws, and unless there is political adjustment penalising the police for their over-reactive, aggressive behaviour in black communities. So far, neither [Democrats nor Republicans] has made this a priority.

[Asked later, by email] What’s your relationship with Louis Theroux like? You’ve obviously been an influence on him; are there any ways in which he’s influenced you?

Louis has been generous in his remarks about Tales of the Grim Sleeper. I respect that, and the undoubted sincerity he has in his work.

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